About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Defining knowledge and group processes

As I prepare for a preliminary presentation of the findings from my dissertation study to date, I have decided to focus on two of the sub-questions from my dissertation:

1. How do individuals define “knowledge”?
2. What process or processes does a distributed group in the workplace use to create shared meaning and understanding during collaborative writing projects? What factors do they identify as shaping that process or processes?

In my previous post, I concluded that:

In this project, it would appear that the source of conflict over epistemology was not a shared understanding of what content was (information, tangible) or know-how (intangible), but rather a shared understanding of design (“what is” as opposed to “what can be created”). This appears to be an overlooked aspect of the collaborative writing process.

I also bring up the following issues:

This brings up questions as to the role of “know-how” in the group collaborative process. If it is considered an individual attribute, can a group have “know-how”? Is there such a thing as collective “know-how”? Would it be developed or used in the same way as individual know how?

In order to answer this, it important to first understand the two writing projects and the differences between the two. To do so, I will concentrate on the second question, but also bring in the idea of design and how it affects the group collaborative writing processes and knowledge of the power structures.

The two writing projects

The process for the first quarterly report was that the project manager collected information (verbally) from each group then wrote the report. There were 7 catagories in the first quarterly report. In the second quarterly report, specific sections were assigned to specific group members. Again, there were seven categories, but the titles were somewhat modified.

The process for writing the Technology Based training section of the quarterly report ended up being members of the Instructional Technology group working on the project giving bullet points to a department writer, who then compiled these into a summary. According to the department writer, these bullet points in the first quarterly report were then passed on to the project manager to integrate into paragraph form for the quarterly report. However, in the second report, the IT Director asked the department writer to prepare a report using written paragraphs. This necessitated members from the IT staff to write up a brief summary in paragraph form. In addition to the IT department, the department writer was also asked to collect information from the video production staff and integrate it into the third section.

There was not a second final copy of the quarterly report available to the group online via their project management software, and according to the project manager, there was not a copy of the second quarterly report available on file. After the second quarterly report was written by the project manager, the report had to be approved by both the IT director and the new Project Director. Changes were sent back to both the project manager and the IT department writer.

The third quarterly report used the same categories as the first quarterly report. However, the tasks were assigned differently. For the third quarterly report, each employee of the IT staff submitted a paragraph of their activities to the IT director. She then passes this on to the IT writer who rewrote a draft of the Technology section. This was then sent back to the IT director who asked for revisions from the IT writer. Once these revisions were made, the Project Manager added the Technology section without making any revisions. This reflected the changes in the position of the IT director and Project Manager within the powerstructure of the project. The IT director’s position was given more responsibility equal to the Project Director, while the Project Manager no longer was overseeing any of the technology work. Rather, his position became more of a coordinator between the two Directors.

The second document created collaboratively by the project group was described by the original author on the project management site as follows:

I expect over the next several weeks to be uploading content files regarding [healthcare counseling] learning objects. I recognize that in so doing, I am inviting the comments of many people. Consequently, I urge you to comment with brevity and clarity. I am looking forward to your suggestions. I urge you to comment within one week of my posting. (R, project management posting).

Within the learning object itself, she described it as:

This learning object is designed to encourage a learner to figure out the plainspoken message embedded in the formal guidelines. The task is for the learner to write the caption for an addict or other person in recovery group, then compare their answer to the answer suggested below in red. This object requires no audio or video, although it would be great if we could deliver the ten guidelines with some experts a la David Letterman’s top 10.

However, the process and even what the document truly was varied from person to person’s perception. In addition, the role of what many perceived as the final form of that document became a very important document to all of the group members.

The antecedents of the document was a white board chart outlining the components of the curriculum from the stand up trainers, developed for planning purposes. R. was part of the planning some of the time, although the purpose of this planning process and R.’s role was perceived differently between departments. Using one of the pieces of the chart, R. developed a learning object as a prototype of what the elearning would look like. Part of this document included the “elearning interface.”

This document became a focal point of discussion within the power structure. The face to face training department contributed to edits using word’s tracking and comment functions. One project member of the face to face training group made edits, which was then modified by a second, then a third. In some cases, edits were made to edits. For the most part, however, edits were made to the original document. In reviewing these edits by the face to face project group members, who were perceived as being the content experts, many of the changes were based on terminology and language use rather than content or grammatical structure. In other words, the edits were based on the discourse community expectations and standards of the target audience.

A few days after the learning object was posted, the Project Director posted a comment asking that all discussion come to a close and the elearning group move on to another task. In other words, the time for discussion of this document was over, whether the group had come to a mutual understanding of the document or not. The curriculum writers felt that they were left with an incomplete understanding of how the elearning piece would fit into the overall training goals. The project group then found alternative ways to discuss this document, including in bi-weekly project meetings, in one on one visits to the others offices (which were physically located in two different buildings across town), or via their own project management space outside of the official online site.

The Top Ten List learning object changed drastically as the content and concept was reformulated. However, one piece of this document was the document interface which was a map of the learning made to look like a subway map. On each “line” of the subway, there were learning stops. It was described by Ronda in the following way during the group meeting:

V: So…as you reconceptualize this, do you… will you end up with an actual document or will this become a different… Is it just a basically a discussion? You had your top ten. So is that no longer the format that you’ll have? Or are you coming up with a new way in which you are communicating those lear…those content elements?
R: Well, what formally…I think the … for the classroom trainers, they have a document. Module 1 contains X number of elements. Module 2 contains X number of elements. Eh…for me, there’s a sort of isomorphic mapping of those content elements onto a schema that reflects those same strains and tho…and that same order. Uh…And I’ll give you a copy of this subway map which talks about where those elements are.

However, not everyone perceived the creation of the “subway map” document as an extension of the original learning object.

H: …The overall was developed in a room upstairs with the four of us…Now I think R. was there sometimes. She wasn’t there all the time. But when we had the old curriculum, we laid out what they had, and then we thought about…the process and overlaid that. Kind of did a crosswalk and saw where the gaps were in the old curriculum and that their flow wasn’t linear at all. Do you know what I mean? But, these…these [points to top ten list] are the rational of why we’re doing this [points to stop on the line]. It’s not…and I can’t even…This [top ten list] did not generate this [subway document]. In my opinion, that is not where it came from! [She laughs].

The document seemed to have an influence on their work. Even the video department, who did not seem to feel connected to the Quarterly Report, placed value on the “Subway” document as a vital road map to their work. They received the “subway” document after it had been completed, but were part of the meetings that discussed its content.

Analysis of the processes and effects on the process

When comparing the two written projects, it is clear that the design of the quarterly report, the format being developed by the funders’ and upper management/organizational’s heuristics or practices, falls into the category of what is. As a result, the organization’s power structure, values, and processes are more transparent. The group members were expected to conform to the document’s content, contributing their “knowledge” and individual know-how, but not design. In other words, they were not expected to create knowledge with the quarterly report.

Therefore, very little effort and communication went into the development of the quarterly report within the group. In fact, many of the group members were unaware of what the final document looked like. They wrote their piece, submitted it, made changes when asked, then forgot about the document. They also gave authorship of the document to those at the top of the organizational power structure, even though all of the core members wrote sections of the report. It appears that they ascribed authorship of the document to the person that designed the document format.

In addition to having a set format, the quarterly report had deadlines and specific information that had to be reported to the funders. In some cases, this information had to be gathered from multiple sources, and in other cases, the information was held by one member of the group. This document also had importance to stakeholders outside of the group which meant that those at the top of the power structure placed great importance on the quarterly report, more so than those in the middle or the bottom of the power structure. Therefore, the processes became more structured, with more oversight from those in positions of power with each subsequent report. As the individual with the expertise was not perceived as being the author of the report, it was sufficient for individuals to contribute to the report without interacting with other group members.

In effect, the perceived knowledge used to collaboratively write the quarterly report was expertise used as currency: withholding, contributing, and prioritizing expertise and who to please. Some of the group members, in fact, felt that too much expertise was provided compared to what the funders were looking for. As such, they felt this expertise should have been withheld as it would not be appreciated by the funders. The group members made certain assumptions about the funders and what expertise they were interested in. Based on the direction of their managers and their perceptions of what the funders valued, they created processes that would result in expertise that could be used as currency for the current job and future jobs.

As one of the group members commented:

They’re not asking us to report this much information. So why have it? We have plenty to do. I don’t need busy work. I’m not doing it. Now that’s just me. I’m not doing i…if there’s a good reason why I need to do it, tell me. But…it’s way too time consuming for what they need for the project. Reporting for the project. I said, “ you thin…you really think people at the sponsor are reading this?” …They’re not asking for that. Why would they read it? I wouldn’t. We’re not the only contract this woman manages.

The second document’s creation falls into the same category as Rittel's concept of wicked problems in design. “Wicked problems are a "class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.(Rittel as quoted by Buchanan, p. 15).”

In fact, this has been an area of interest within the design literature for decades (Buchanan, 1992). In preparing the second document, it was obvious that there was conflicting values between departments, by both the funders and the target audience, and within the organizational and group power structures. To a certain extent, this was caused by differences in the professional values and standards within which each member had been trained.

For example, one of the instructional designers was dissatisfied with the way in which the subway stop document was used.

Well, because each one…each one of those ah nodes on the map, they’re a full fledged course rather than, you know, back then it was just supposed to be a s…you know, one stop, one node. You know, you get a little tidbit. A top ten this and a top ten that. So, you know, they’re now…each one is a course with 4 lessons. 4-5 lessons in each one. Sometimes 6 less…I mean, 4-6 lessons in each one. And each lesson would contain, you know, about 10-12 pages. And what you’ll find, too, is there’s a lot of redundancy, between each unit in a module. Why is that? It’s because, really, we don’t need 4 courses in a module. A module is just really one course. I mean, it’s trained in one day. But because…. the new bosses didn’t really….unders…you know, they…they weren’t there when we were designing, um… conceptualizing the elearning. They thought that these nodes were going to be courses. [pause] So we had to dev…del…deliver courses.

Because the document and processes created to develop the document were flexible with no format provided by the upper management or funders, there was opportunity to interpret how the document would be used and the final product that would be designed. In other words, what can be. A result of this lack of imposed structure from outside was that the document was created and designed by the group. Group members did identify the primary author of the first draft entitled “Top Ten List” as the author of that document. However, they perceived other renditions of that original document as new documents rather than edits or different drafts. Even subsequent versions of the “Subway Map” document were referred to as versions, rather than drafts. This indicates the perception that each update created a unique document. The authorship of the Subway Map was then claimed by multiple members of the group, as a group document.

It would appear that because the document was developed more collaboratively, outside of the power structure but within the group structure, there is a closer personal tie by group members and a higher claim to authorship within the group. This document also appears to influence as well as be influenced by the group. As such, it appears to be more visceral in its interpretation rather than becoming a permanent record for the group.

The role that the document took was that of a planning document and a touch point for discussing the format of the learning across the departments. It also allowed those with decision making power to reconceptualize the project while maintaining the document’s format. Unlike the quarterly report, the negotiation of meaning and understanding happened outside of the written format. In fact, when those in authority declared the document complete and tried to discontinue further discussion, the group found other channels outside of the formal power structure in which to negotiate meaning around the Top Ten List and Subway Map. This discussion continued throughout the course of the study, resulting in subsequent versions of the Subway Map and the scrapping of the Top Ten List.

Another factor that influenced the process for the writing the second document was the physical location of the group members. This document became a planning document for group members that were not physically available for discussion about a complex product. During the second week of the study, the elearning department was relocated across town into the same building as the Video department. However, the video department’s office had a totally separate entrance into the building. In other words, they were virtually located in another building. The project group used a number of different tools and strategies to try to negotiate meaning, and create and revise this complex document. This included regular face to face meetings with minutes and/or the use of a whiteboard, notes, and drawings. They also posted drafts and ideas for comments in both organizational and project spaces online using the organization’s project software. The elearning group also developed its own programming to help create the document.

Finally, as there was more pressure by those in authority to move on from the document creation, the project group found more means of communicating outside of the scope of the power structure. This included having a desk designated for use by the curriculum developers (located in southern office) in the elearning department (located in the northern office). This allowed group members to work together on a regular basis. Interestingly enough, there was not a reciprocal desk in the southern office, which happened to be where most of the organizational and project management was located. When working in the southern office, the elearning and video groups used public conference rooms, forcing them always to share resources with the stand up trainers and curriculum developers.


One of the implications in looking at these two collaborative writing tasks and processes is that different workplace writing tasks will access different types of expertise and develop different types of knowledge. This means that more mindful assignment of writing tasks might result in better development of workers’ and teams’ capacity. This would be especially important when the organization’s product is knowledge.

In the case of the standard report, in which the design of the writing task is imposed on the group, team members would be able to better understand the organization’s structure, culture, and stakeholders’ needs through the collaborative writing of the report. This would be a good training and/or team building tool, especially if there is a need to change organizational culture. This is especially true with a newly created distributed group. Often these groups have cognitive trust issues or are under time pressure to produce work. A standardized collaborative report will help to prioritize tasks, make explicit an organizational power structure within which the group will work, and identify expertise/information that is important to stakeholders.

However, it is also important that the organization recognizes the role of a standard report. This means that the design of the report be done in a more conscious manner in order to reflect the organizational culture and the image that they want to project internally and externally. At a minimum, those responsible for communication either organizationally or departmentally, should contribute to the creation of standard report formats. In addition, upper management should be involved in the creation of processes for the collaborative writing of these standard reports to ensure that there is a clear understanding of the lines of authority for a distributed team.

In the case of the second document, the collaborative writing process became a mechanism to negotiate meaning, share information, create shared mental models, and create group “knowledge.” The document produced was not as important to the group’s work as the process was in creating the document. The document then became a record of this group knowledge. In other words, the creation of this second unformatted document helped to document the perceived group knowledge as opposed to the first document which documented the organizational culture and power structure. However, the intent of the first document was to document the group knowledge for the funder. Since knowledge for the first document was perceived as being currency, the organizational power structure, in fact documented group knowledge those in authority felt was valuable to the funders, thus impeding group knowledge creation.

One of the implications from studying the second document is that there should be design time for newly created distributed groups to develop collaboratively written documents in order to help define the group’s values and processes. The outcome of this might be an increase in group generated knowledge, as members negotiate meaning and understanding, drawing from both professional and departmental discourse communities. Discourse communities not only represent the communication structures within a community, including language choice, rhetorical style, and genres, but also the shared knowledge that underpins those communication structures. As group members are exposed to different discourse communities, they contribute new communication structures that the group then may incorporate into their group processes. This was seen, for example, in the group renaming their learning object to content object as learning object had a different meaning within the various group members’ discourse communities. The group agreed on the meaning of content object, thus creating their own terminology for discussion about the document.

More than just the definition of values and processes, however, an unstructured document allows for different perceptive taking, the building of new mental models, and the development of shared cognition. This allows for communities of practice which members can take back to their own departments. In fact, many in the stand up training mentioned how working with the elearning department on the learning object and interface, they had a new perspective of how to develop the curriculum to make it easier to create a content object. Likewise, those in the elearning department commented on how they had a new perspective on the content and target audience through the designing of the top ten list and other learning objects.

In looking at the two documents, there is also a need for common tools and workplaces for unstructured documents. These places and tools need to allow different members to interact, both verbally and visually, both in “public” and “private” places. The public places are used to solicit feedback, while the private places create a safe environment to resolve conflict, negotiate design and meaning, and show works/designs in progress. These private places are needed so that group members do not feel intimidated by showing incomplete work or admitting to gaps in knowledge or understanding. It also helps allow for information overload with critiques from multiple parties to be minimized. As evidenced by the creation of the second document, group members might feel intimidated or pressured to publicly present drafts which conform to a format or knowledge upon which their position in the group or power structure will be determined.

Some questions I am still wrestling with are:

1. Can group know how be equated with discourse communities or communities of practice?
2. What is happening to the individual’s perception of knowledge as the group addresses a “wicked problem” such as the second collaborative writing task? (Hopefully my analysis of the data for the third question will help to address this question)
3. Is there a difference between versions and drafts?

Reference: Wicked Problems in Design Thinking Author(s): Richard Buchanan Source: Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Spring, 1992), pp. 5-21

Don't we live in a technological world?

I saw many stories about the loss of business due to the grounding of the European airlines, and thought, "Don't these businesses have ICT that they can use in lieu of sending people to face to face meetings?" Of course, this would not help the airlines, but other businesses should have the capacity to conduct video conferencing and/or online meetings through other technologies.

I'm sorry I haven't posted in a while, but I hope to upload what I am working on for my dissertation in the next day or so. Teaching my son to drive, getting the kids to and from their activities, teaching 3 courses in two locations, writing my dissertation, and handling the logistics of continuing in my program means something has to give. Unfortunately, it's my blogging (and peace of mind...driving with a 16 year old who is convinced he knows EVERYTHING about driving, except perhaps keeping the car out of a ditch without mom's dulcet tones reminding him to look up!).